#MeToo: The Story Of A Trainer, A Trophy And An All-Too-Common Betrayal

Apr 4, 2018 - 1:33 PM

Warning! The following article contains explicit content and descriptions of sexual assault.

Click here to read DiAnn Langer’s personal account of her own sexual abuse, which ran as a companion with this story.

If you want to know more about why the Chronicle decided to publish this story, please read President Beth Rasin’s Editor’s Letter.

Jack Le Goff’s worn it. Captain Jack Fritz put it on. So did Jimmy Wofford, Sallie Sexton, Bert de Némethy, Jessica Ransehousen and Ned and Nina Bonnie.

For 28 years the biggest names in the sport donned the Jimmy A. Williams trophy, awarded to the annual Jimmy A. Williams U.S. Equestrian Federation Lifetime Achievement Award winner, all smiling as their photo was taken with the silver cowboy hat atop their heads. And in 2016 Helena “Lana” duPont Wright became the last person to wear the hat, which was modeled by Tiffany’s after the California show jumping icon’s signature topper.

USEF Annual Meeting
In January of 2013, then-USEF President Chrystine Tauber awarded Joe Fargis the prestigious Jimmy A. Williams U.S. Equestrian Federation Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual meeting. Photo by Sara Lieser.

Then the trophy, arguably the most meaningful award bestowed by the USEF or anyone else in the sport, disappeared without a word. In January of 2017 Larry Langer was awarded the new USEF Lifetime Achievement Award—without Williams’ name attached to it and with a new trophy.

After that year’s banquet The Chronicle of the Horse reached out to ask why Williams’ award disappeared, and Chrystine Tauber, who had just stepped down as USEF president, responded in an email:

“In the course of gathering data for the strategic plan all areas were reviewed including events and awards. It was determined at that time that the lifetime award should not have an individual’s name on it but rather be the USEF Lifetime Achievement Award. All the winners have been outstanding horsemen and horsewomen who have greatly influenced our sport and all merit equal honor.”

But when asked this March, amidst a major reform on how sexual misconduct allegations are handled by the U.S. Olympic Committee and all its member sports, USEF General Counsel Sonja Keating responded differently in a statement.

“The retirement of the Jimmy A. Williams Lifetime Achievement Award was due to allegations that Jimmy Williams engaged in sexual misconduct in his role as a trainer,” said Keating. “USEF did not conduct a formal investigation into the allegations as he had been deceased since 1993, but due to the credibility of the persons that shared the information, the board voted unanimously to retire that trophy.”

A Legendary Master

Williams’ decades-long tenure at Flintridge Riding Club in La Cañada, California, remains legendary, even 25 years after his death. His students include two current USEF chefs d’equipe—Robert Ridland and Anne Kursinski—as well as international riders like Mary Mairs Chapot, Susie Hutchison, Hap Hansen, Francie Steinwedell-Carvin and Mason Phelps Jr. By one count he taught 37 professional riders during his career, and it’s hard to find a rider who spent time on the West Coast in the third quarter of the last century who doesn’t cite him as a major influence.

He was an extraordinary horseman in the truest sense of the word, treating each horse as an individual on his way to induction into the Show Jumping Hall Of Fame and the National Reined Cow Horse Association Hall Of Fame, and he learned dressage while serving in the Army during World War II in Italy. He served as chef d’equipe for the U.S. show jumping team at Spruce Meadows (Alberta) in 1981 and ’82. He was named AHSA Horseman of the Year in 1960 and California Professional Horsemen’s Association Horseman of the Year in 1977. And in 1989 he became the first recipient of the American Horse Shows Association’s Jimmy A. Williams Lifetime Achievement Award.

He was a charming, admired and, by all accounts, handsome man who’d spent time in Hollywood riding as a stunt double for Tyrone Power in Westerns like “Jesse James” and training horses for classics like “The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit” and “The Horse With The Flying Tail.” He was popular and respected across the country.

Rider after rider who grew up training at Flintridge echoed the same sentiment: Williams was among the most important equestrian influences on their lives.

He has also been accused of sexual assault by multiple former students.

Nightmare In The Barn Aisle

Williams had a habit of kissing women and girls on the mouth, and not just a peck.

“He would try to French kiss all of us,” said Cece Durante Bloum, who rode at Flintridge in the late 1970s while she was a teenager and now runs Newmarket Farm in San Diego. “He would kiss us, and we would laugh and say, ‘Ugh, that’s so gross! Stay away from him.’ ”

That’s as far as anything went for Bloum, but for others that’s where the abuse began.

Karen Herold came to Flintridge in 1976, when she was 16, ecstatic at the chance to ride with the trainer she described as “revered.” But things started going downhill shortly after she arrived.

“If you were in a stall or the barn aisle, and you were by yourself he would come up beside you and start touching you inappropriately,” she recalled. “He’d French kiss you—he’d even do that in front of adults—and no one said anything. It was awful.”

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Herold described being molested by another trainer when she was 12 and 13, before she came to Flintridge. She used the coping skills she’d internalized during that abuse when she started riding with Williams.

“I’d be riding in the ring, and [Jimmy would] come up alongside of me and walk alongside—he’d always be on a horse in the ring—and he’d tell me horrible sexual stories about how to turn on a woman and his own sexual experiences,” she recalled. “For me, I had to get to the point where I would shut that part of my brain down when things were happening. I didn’t allow it to penetrate me. I’d already been molested by [my previous trainer], and I’d learned how to shut that part of my brain down. You knew things were going on, but you didn’t feel them. He kissed me, told me foul sexual stories, and touched me in places that he shouldn’t have.

“Whenever you were at the barn you’d think, ‘I wonder what he’s going to do today. Is he going to corner me today?’ ” she added. “It was horrible.”

Kursinski started with the beginner instructor at Flintridge at the age of 4, and in 1970, at 11, she was invited to train with Williams, who taught the most advanced students at the club. It was a huge honor, and she idolized him.

“When I was 11 he started teaching me, and that’s when the abuse started,” said Kursinski. “He’d tell me, ‘You’re special.’ It started when I was 11 with kissing. The abuse got much worse and continued for six years.

“He told me that I couldn’t tell anyone—and I believed him,” she continued. “I’ve learned so much about psychology and about pedophiles since then. They know just what to say. I was worried I’d be thrown out of Flintridge Riding Club or worse. I didn’t tell anyone what was happening for a very long time after that.”

Kursinski said the sexual abuse stopped toward the end of her junior years, but emotionally he kept a stranglehold over her by bullying and manipulating her. She rode for the U.S. team for the first time when she was in high school, and she’d been invited by the likes of George Morris, Bill Steinkraus and Bert de Némethy to come east where the most serious show jumping took place. Her own mother, as well as her sponsor, Fran Steinwedell (mother of Francie), encouraged her to move on, and Hilda Gurney even invited her to swap to dressage full time and ride for the team in that sport. But she felt compelled to stay until 1981, when she finally left for the East Coast, where she would have a shot at fulfilling her Olympic dream.

“He didn’t want me to leave, and he was not happy when I left,” Kursinski said. “I was good for business. I rode well, and Susie [Hutchison] and I got horses sold. He had a good thing going and encouraged a competitive thing between me and Susie—we were best friends at the time. When it was time for me to go he wasn’t really supportive of me. He’d say, ‘They’ll ruin you. You’ll become a drug addict. You’ll become a lesbian.’ All these threats, they were just a little bit of the mental abuse that went along with it.”

Former Flintridge student Gigi Gaston remembers tasting beer on his mouth as he shoved her into stalls for kissing lessons (“He’d say, ‘You’re going to need to learn this for the big world,’ ” she recalled), and things got much worse.

One day a trainer at Flintridge who worked for Williams but did not show walked by her without stopping and told her that Williams wanted to see her at his house.

“He was sitting in his arm chair at his house, and he said, ‘Come over here,’ and he unzipped his pants and yanked my head down onto him,” said Gaston.

Gaston ran out of the house sobbing, got in her car and drove to the home of family friends Larry and Beverly Petal. She told them what happened, and Larry insisted she get in the car and drive back to Flintridge.

“He was so mad. We got in the car with me begging him not to and headed over to Jimmy Williams’ driving 90 miles per hour,” Gaston recalled. “I blocked it out; I don’t know if I stayed in the car, but I know he confronted that man.”

Larry has since died, but Beverly remembers that day.

“She came in crying and quite upset, and she told us, basically, that Jimmy made a pass at her,” said Beverly. “She and Larry drove off in the car together.”

Steinwedell-Carvin wasn’t protected from Williams’ advances even though her mother also rode at the club and was a constant presence there. Steinwedell was also a major force in the West Coast show jumping scene, bringing World Cup qualifying classes to Flintridge and the first USEF A-rated horse show to California.

Steinwedell-Carvin was a star in the ring, topping the 1976 AHSA Medal Final (Pennsylvania) to become the first West Coast rider to win a major equitation final in 13 years. The next year she won the ASPCA Maclay Final (New York).

“I was an adult when I learned that I was sexually abused,” said Steinwedell-Carvin, who had blocked the memory until she was in therapy years later. “I didn’t get raped. There was inappropriate touching and inappropriate sexual advances. I thought it was all just part of training with him. You’d walk by the tack room when he was there and hurry off, thinking, ‘Good thing I have this horse to ride.’ It probably didn’t happen as much to me because my mom owned horses with him and was in business with him.”

The Fallout

Herold didn’t tell anyone about the abuse until she was 22. While suffering from “profound depression” she finally admitted what had happened to a therapist.

“It was a huge revelation to [the therapist],” she said. “They said, ‘This is a huge problem, Karen. This is it.’

“Telling my parents was really hard,” she continued. “They’d tried so hard to do what their daughter wanted to do, by supporting my riding. They tried to do everything right.”

Gaston held off from telling her mother for years because she feared she’d be forced to leave Flintridge and the riding master who’d transformed her riding and coached her to fourth at the Medal Final in 1976.

pg45-2When Steinwedell-Carvin heard about what others had gone through her own complicated feelings grew muddier.

“I know others had it worse, and that can make you feel like you don’t deserve to feel bad,” she said. “But it still affects my life in so many ways. It’s a struggle with guilt and shame and self-worth. There was so much manipulation involved with the abuse.”

In the late 1980s, years after the abuse had ended and after Kursinski had amassed a pair of gold medals from the Pan American Games (Venezuela) and her first of an eventual two silver Olympic medals, she finally told a therapist about the abuse, and she spent years working hard in counseling to make sense of it. Long before it was mainstream, Kursinski read books on psychology, channeling her energy into improving herself through therapy and regular gym sessions.

“Part of my therapy was to confront him,” she said. “I wanted to get an apology. So one winter I went to the riding club, and after lessons were over I walked to his golf cart and asked him why he did it. Finally, he did apologize. He cried. He said he loved me; he loved me like a daughter. It was incestuous.

“There was some backlash,” she continued. “He was bashing me some, trying to ruin my reputation. But at that point I’d been to the Olympics several times. I didn’t really care.”

On the path to healing she also confided in her younger sister Lisa Kursinski, who confirmed that she, too, had been victimized by Williams. Anne responded to the sexual abuse and the accompanying manipulation by digging deep and demonstrating the “I’ll show you” attitude that helped her earn a berth to three Olympic Games, but Lisa struggled personally and acted out in the wake of the abuse. Lisa died of liver cancer in 2013.

Anne finally disclosed to her parents in 1990, and they were devastated by the revelation. Her dad told her he’d had concerns and talked to the president of Flintridge, but nothing came of it. Both Anne’s parents are deceased, so it’s impossible to confirm which president he spoke with or when; there were nine different presidents in the 1970s alone.

Talking to Lisa about the abuse felt healing to Anne, and eventually several of Williams’ former victims, including Gaston, Anne, Steinwedell-Carvin and Herold, all of whom rode with Williams around the same time, found out about each other’s experiences. They started talking together to help process their complicated emotions like shame, guilt, anger and isolation. Intimacy issues were also a common theme. All struggled to reconcile what they knew firsthand: Jimmy Williams was both an extraordinary horseman and a predator.

“I’ve actually forgiven him,” said Anne. “Some people look at me and say, ‘How could you forgive him after what he did?’ but I did it, after an awful lot of work. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what he did was OK. It’s not. It should never happen. On the other hand, I can’t carry it around like that for the rest of time. That forgiveness frees me.”

 A Different Era

The 1970s were a much different time than 2018. The laws to protect children are stronger now; we understand more about abuse and its long-term effects, and we have more safeguards in place to protect children. Psychology is more mainstream, and professionals now know that many victims wait years to come forward for myriad reasons like shame, fear of consequences, low self-esteem, feelings of isolation and minimization, a phenomenon where victims convince themselves that the treatment they received wasn’t a big deal.

Many describe the horse show world in the ’70s as an old boys’ club and point out how much attitudes within the sport have changed. But one thing hasn’t changed: Successful trainers still hold tremendous power over their students, and there’s real potential to abuse that power, as Williams did.

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Jimmy Williams was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall Of Fame and the National Reined Cow Horse Association Hall Of Fame, and he was named AHSA Horseman of the Year in 1960 and California Professional Horsemen’s Association Horseman of the Year in 1977. Photo by Fallaw.

To be clear, we could not find evidence that Williams had ever been charged with sexual misconduct or convicted, and two former students have told the Chronicle that they were not assaulted and did not witness any sexual misconduct by him. Obviously, he’s not around today to defend himself. It’s also clear that many students graduated from Williams’ program with universally positive experiences.

Hutchison, for one, spent decades with Williams, riding under his tutelage as a junior and working with him throughout her life. She said they started dating when she was 18, when he would have been 55, and the relationship continued until his death. She said that during that time she did not personally witness any abuse, and she does not believe any allegations of abuse against Williams.

But Hutchison did witness Eddie Connors, a friend of Steinwedell-Carvin, confront Williams.

“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “It was at the old [HITS Indio (California) showgrounds], and [Eddie] came into the motor home and was saying that [Jimmy] had abused Francie. Jimmy blatantly denied it.

“I was there when Eddie came and talked to Jimmy about Francie and so forth,” she continued. “But he was a ladies’ man; I absolutely don’t believe that he was a child molester.”

She also pointed out that some behavior understood as acceptable in that era wouldn’t hold up today.

“I feel that, OK, at least Jimmy was confronted at one point when he was still alive to defend himself, which I think is a good thing,” she continued. “And then, besides that one allegation, I never heard of any other ones, and I don’t believe there were any.”

It’s clear that there were rumors of Williams’ misbehavior at the time. One former board member of the Flintridge Riding Club confirmed seeing a file folder in the office containing a report of a sexual misconduct against Williams submitted by the mother of a young girl at Flintridge. This board member said the folder subsequently disappeared from the club.

His obituary in The Los Angeles Times describes his personality thus: “Williams had a reputation as a ladies’ man and he was married six times. He whisked around horse shows in a golf cart with a sign proclaiming, ‘Jimmy Williams is a clean old man . . . amen.’ ”

Former AHSA/USAEquestrian President Alan Balch joined Flintridge Riding Club in the 1970s and is still a member today. He’s a past board member and past president of the club. He knew Williams well, and he donated the trophy that was given in his name. Balch declined to be interviewed about Williams but sent the Chronicle a statement that included:

“One club member indirectly contacted me at some point in the last years of Jimmy’s life and alleged his misbehavior with her then-adult daughter many years before, during her junior career, and named another girl as well. I was shocked. I immediately contacted Jimmy, personally, alone, and told him of the accusations. He didn’t hesitate even a second. He asked me to contact the second girl (also then an adult) right then, and her mother, right then, so we could discuss this together. I suggested we might talk alone first, but he insisted on having this conversation with them without any possible time for him to confer with them beforehand.

“So we did, with the second girl in person and her mother on the telephone. They described the chronology of Jimmy’s relationships with their family over the years, and made it clear that there had been no misconduct of any kind with them, despite what had been alleged. They then went on to question the motives and behavior of the member who had contacted me initially, and her daughter. I heard more during that conversation about the rivalries, jealousies, pressures, difficulties, and personal or family improprieties faced by top-level students and members over the decades than I ever knew before or wanted to know. Jimmy calmly but firmly denied any misconduct toward anyone but also speculated about possible reasons for any such allegations.

“I relayed this back to the member. She wasn’t satisfied; apparently her daughter had first revealed the alleged wrongful behavior as a repressed memory during substance abuse recovery much later. Evidently that was why it hadn’t been reported at the time, so many years before. Under all these circumstances, it seemed to me that she, her daughter, and Jimmy needed to make peace about all this among themselves, and I said so. Only they knew the whole truth about the matter.”

The statement continued: “Jimmy Williams never claimed impeccable personal virtue, despite being a decorated veteran of World War II and self-made with only limited formal education. Quite the contrary. He had been married numerous times; he had given up excessive drinking long before this allegation was made.”

So What Is SafeSport, Anyway?

In the wake of child sex abuse scandals in gymnastics and swimming, and with the #MeToo movement spreading from Hollywood to the business world and beyond, there’s more emphasis than ever on how communities handle allegations of sexual misconduct. So what’s going on in the horse world? And whose job is it to keep young equestrians safe?

One obvious answer is the USEF. There’s nothing in the USEF Rulebook about sexual misconduct, but Keating explained that GR 702—a catchall rule defining violations that encompass a wide variety of bad behavior—could be and has been used to charge individuals with inappropriate sexual behavior.

But four years ago a new program made a quiet debut, and it will completely change how equestrians deal with sexual misconduct going forward: SafeSport.

The U.S. Center For SafeSport helps protect athletes in sports governed by the U.S. Olympic Committee from six forms of misconduct defined in the SafeSport code: hazing, bullying, harassment, emotional misconduct, physical misconduct and sexual misconduct, including child sexual abuse. More to the point, the organization has the exclusive authority to investigate reports of sexual abuse within the sport of equestrian.

By virtue of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, the so-called “Ted Stevens Act,” the USOC and the U.S. Center For SafeSport has authority over the USEF and the other 46 national governing bodies in the Olympic movement. The SafeSport program debuted as a USOC initiative in 2012 after input from athletes, child safety experts and NGB officials. The U.S. Center For SafeSport opened in Denver last March as an agency independent from the USOC in order to eliminate conflicts of interest.

Each sport has its own individual policies that meet or exceed the minimum standards required by the national program, so the program can work within each sport’s culture and organizational structure. For example, many sports have a national training center where athletes prepare together for major competitions, prompting those NGBs to install safeguards unnecessary in equestrian.

Keating has been involved with the creation of the national SafeSport program since the beginning. After serving on three task forces to help develop the national minimum standards for all sports, she formed a task force within the USEF to create policies that would work for equestrians. The USEF’s first set of policies went into effect Dec. 1, 2013.

At the moment, a rule requires all USEF licensed officials and other USEF designees such as chefs d’equipe to undergo free SafeSport training, i.e. complete a series of training videos on the SafeSport Center’s website. The rule also requires these individuals to undergo a criminal background check.

This year, the USEF considered a rule change proposal that would have required professionals and anyone who signs as coach at a competition to undergo SafeSport training and a background check, among other things. The proposal failed, but it has support from many in the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the affiliate that sponsored the proposal. The USHJA is now considering adopting the rule for its sports only. Even those who welcome the intent of the rule point out that it would be tough or impossible to impose the requirements at Fédération Equestre Internationale-level shows with the influx of international competitors, officials and support staff.

pg52-1It’s worth noting that other NGBs have much broader requirements for the SafeSport training and background checks, and most already require it of all coaches working with minors. USA Basketball, for example, requires the training for “designees that will have routine access to minor participants, including but not limited to national team managers, locker room monitors and travel chaperones” as well as anyone who has “direct contact with or supervision over minor participants.”

But whether or not a rule mandating SafeSport training for additional individuals comes into effect distracts from the bigger issue: The SafeSport code is already the law of the land and already applies to all “covered parties” in the USOC family.

“Right now there are two buckets of people,” explained Keating. “The first bucket is the USEF designees: the team coaches, the licensed officials and so on. Those folks already have to undergo a criminal background check and do the training. Both those have to be refreshed every 24 months. The second bucket is made up of participants, including members and non-members who pay a show pass fee. That bucket doesn’t [currently] have to do training or a background check. They do have to abide by the code. They do have a duty to report required by the code.”

But competitors, licensed officials and chefs d’equipe make up a small part of the individuals in the equestrian world. What about everyone else? If a starter or a vendor or a member of jump crew violates the SafeSport code, can that person be held accountable? Yes. If SafeSport investigators determine there has been a violation that warrants it, the USEF can ban individuals—members or not—from showgrounds and from joining the federation.

“The USEF has taken action against non-members in the past, because we can control who has access to the showgrounds and who doesn’t,” said Keating. “It’s tricky, but if we get a report that a spectator at a competition is sexually harassing people, for example, and we know who the spectator is, we can take action to prevent him from ever becoming a member and ensure he doesn’t come on the showgrounds.”

The structure of horse sport—where some equestrians are only members of licensed affiliates, like the U.S. Eventing Association and U.S. Dressage Federation, and not members of the USEF— makes it unlike other sports, but Keating said the USEF will assert jurisdiction over affiliate members, even those who aren’t USEF members. (See “The Power And Limits Of SafeSport: A Case Study” below.)

“We are absolutely committed to safeguarding our kids,” said Keating.

“Every report is going to be treated the same,” she continued. “If there’s any report of sexual misconduct made, it will immediately go to the U.S. Center For SafeSport. I don’t care who it is. Your contributions don’t matter. Nothing else matters.”

There’s still plenty to work out. Congress is looking at the governance structure between the USOC and NGBs, and parts of the Ted Stevens Act may be revised. At press time each of the NGBs was preparing a comprehensive report including all allegations of sexual harassment—from off-color jokes to full-on assault—since 2005, information about exactly how each was addressed and what the outcome was.

How Does It Work?

The SafeSport code explicitly defines terms like consent, bullying, harassment and hazing, then lays out what behavior constitutes a violation and the procedures through which misconduct is handled.

The code doesn’t replace state or federal laws and has no bearing on whether an individual files charges or claims with law enforcement or the courts (see “Making A Report” below). That said, a member can be found to be in violation of the code without being convicted of a crime.

The code also enacts mandatory reporting of all “conduct of which they become aware that could constitute (a) sexual misconduct, (b) misconduct that is reasonably related to the underlying allegation of sexual misconduct and (c) retaliation related to an allegation of sexual misconduct” to the U.S. Center For SafeSport. This applies to all “covered adults.” (That’s both those buckets of people.)

In addition, on Valentine’s Day of this year, Senate Bill 534, the Protecting Young Victims From Sexual Abuse And SafeSport Authorization Act of 2017, passed, which requires covered adults involved in USOC governed sports to report child abuse, including sexual abuse. Anyone who fails to report suspected child abuse is subject to criminal penalties. The law also extends the civil statute of limitations for federal sex offenses.

So someone who doesn’t report suspected sexual abuse has bigger problems than just getting penalized by the USEF: That person can go to jail.

Another important notation about the SafeSport code: There is no statute of limitations. So while the government’s criminal statue of limitations may have expired for a victim abused decades ago, that individual can report the abuse to the Center tomorrow, and the Center will investigate and, if appropriate, take action against the accused.

Penalties for SafeSport violations range from a warning—which is not made public—all the way to a ban. Bans, suspensions and interim suspensions—interim suspensions may be ordered while an individual is under investigation for an egregious violation—are all listed at usef.org. All SafeSport violations are listed there from across all NGBs, and they’re searchable by sport. The list, like the whole SafeSport program, is a work in process. You don’t have to undergo a criminal background check just to join the USEF, so it’s possible that someone who committed a criminal act that would constitute a SafeSport violation could join.

SafeSport isn’t just about protecting children but all athletes. The SafeSport code recognizes an inherent imbalance of power between coaches and athletes, even if the athletes are adults, and that athletes across sports worry about retribution from team selectors, coaches or their federations if they complain.

USA Swimming is currently facing allegations that they ignored complaints of abuse. One longtime employee, Paul Hogan, has been forced out amid questions about whether his relationship with his first wife—whom he coached—began before or after she turned 18. The imbalance of power inherent in their positions has prompted swimming to examine the ethics of coaches dating or marrying students, a phenomenon common in the equestrian world as well.

While Kursinski noted that she’d confided her story in other women at the top of the sport and heard similar tales in return, many others are afraid to speak up or do something for fear of retribution.

“A lot of them think, ‘No, I can’t! I won’t get the ride,’ ” she said. “ ‘The horse will be taken away from me.’ There are so many things that go on with it. All they wanted to do was ride, and [by coming forward] you’re not going to be able to. But you start talking to someone about it, and she’ll say, ‘Yeah. Me too.’ ”

Next on the docket for SafeSport? Focusing on education. The Center just received a grant to create age-appropriate athlete educational materials, as 5-, 15- and 25-year-olds need information delivered in different ways. They’re also rolling out several other initiatives, including a parent online course and toolkit, throughout 2018. (There’s a list of expert-created resources listed under “Resources.”)

“This Doesn’t Define Me”

Had the U.S. Center For SafeSport existed when Gaston, Steinwedell-Carvin, Herold, Anne and Lisa were children there would have been a specialized mechanism in place to protect them. While the charm, fame and power of Williams may have intimidated board members, staff, victims and parents at Flintridge Riding Club from publicly coming forward, anyone with suspicions could have reported the behavior anonymously to trigger an outside investigation. SafeSport training could have given adults tools to help prevent these children from being victimized in the first place.

Each of the four survivors who told their story to the Chronicle echoed the same sentiment: They shared their painful, intimate stories to demonstrate that there is a path to recovery, to discuss how harmful this behavior is and, most importantly, to help protect children.

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“I think it’s important to realize that abuse can absolutely ruin lives,” said Herold, Los Angeles. “All of us suffered real consequences. It’s impacted all parts of our lives, and we’ve spent thousands of dollars on therapy. Now, 30 or 40 years later, we can say we’re on the path to healing. No child should go through that.”

These days, Herold is involved in breast cancer research. Gaston is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, producer and director. Steinwedell-Carvin runs Meadow Grove Farm in Lake View Terrace, California, with her husband Dick Carvin and has an impressive riding résumé that includes two FEI World Cup Finals.

And Anne, most recently, has become the USEF show jumping developing chef d’equipe. She takes that role seriously, and that position compelled her to share her story.

“I’m doing this because I want to make a change in my sport, and I want to help young riders,” said Anne. “I love my sport. I love the horses. I’m here because of the horses. I think about little girls’ dreams—that Olympic dream that I had and did manage to achieve. I want to help the sport now and for future generations.”

Anne also knows that her trauma and recovery from it has influenced her in every way. She’s absorbed the discipline and methodical training of her youth but developed a distaste for the belittling style in which it was delivered. She tries to balance strength and compassion, describing her teaching style as an “encouraging disciplinarian.” And through it all, she’s never forgotten why she pulls on her boots every morning.

“When everything was crazy, the horses were my security,” she said. “They were safety, where I could go to get away from it. When I was on a horse I was safe. And the horses were my savior, the whole way through.

“This doesn’t define me,” she continued. “It’s not who I am. It’s not that it didn’t happen, but it is one part of my life experience. Now we need to make changes to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”


THE POWER AND LIMITS OF SAFESPORT: A CASE STUDY

Randall Cates, an American Saddlebred trainer from Edmond, Oklahoma, was found to have violated the Athlete Protection Policy in the SafeSport Policy Handbook by the U.S. Equestrian Federation Hearing Committee. During the two-day hearing the committee considered transcripts of sexual text messages from 2012 to 2014, recorded testimony, and a recorded conversation, ultimately determining that the trainer abused the imbalance of power and groomed a minor student, resulting in a sexual relationship.

In April of 2015 the committee published their official notice of actions taken by the USEF with an extraordinary closing paragraph:

“The Hearing Committee has not previously imposed a lifetime ban on a member. But given the serious nature of the violation, Mr. Cates’ stature at the time as a trainer of many minor athletes, his systematic and insidious grooming of the minor victim over a multi-year period for his sexual benefit, and his consummation of sexual relations with the victim while she was a minor, the Hearing Committee determined that a lifetime ban is appropriate here for Mr. Cates’ violations of the Athlete Protection Policy in the Federation’s SafeSport Policy.”

(Multiple individuals have been expelled from the USEF, for example, after the insurance scam horse killings in the ’90s. But Keating pointed out that an expulsion is different from a ban or a suspension. A suspended member is out for a set period of time, and a banned member may never rejoin or set foot on USEF showgrounds again. Expelled members are kicked out and can—and have in the past—applied to the USEF Hearing Committee for reinstatement after a set period of time, by attempting to demonstrate set criteria, including rehabilitation.)

Cates’ lifetime ban from the USEF triggered a reciprocal lifetime ban from the American Saddlebred Horse Association, an affiliate of the USEF. Another organization for gaited horses, the United Professional Horsemen’s Association, also banned Cates reciprocally, as the UPHA is an “alliance partner” of the USEF, a much looser association, but one that requires the UPHA to honor USEF Hearing Committee findings.

Cates sued the UPHA for membership and lost. But he still runs Cross Creek Stables in Edmond, and his website emphasizes the summer camps and children’s lesson programs offered by Cross Creek—including a monthly Parent’s Night Out from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.—often with “optional sleepover” offered.

How can this happen? Unlike most sports in the Olympic family, equestrian isn’t composed of registered clubs, and riding instructors don’t need to be certified with the USEF, or with anyone else for that matter. Because Cates wasn’t convicted of sexual abuse in a court of law or put on the sex offender registry, there’s no law keeping him from teaching children.

Now for the good news: SafeSport bans are reciprocal with other sports, so Cates is ineligible to join any other national governing bodies in any capacity. More to the point, if someone is banned from, say, gymnastics for a SafeSport violation, that person is also banned by the USEF, so predators can’t just swap sports.


 MAKING A REPORT

To report a SafeSport violation, call the U.S. Center For SafeSport or fill out an online form at safesport.org, where there’s an option to upload supporting documents. Photos, videos, text messages and email transcripts are very helpful to investigators. Whether you report via web or phone, you may report anonymously, but SafeSport CEO Shellie Pfohl did say that anonymous reports are more difficult to investigate.

“We take confidentiality very seriously for obvious reasons,” said Pfohl. “We will take reports from a third party or an anonymous party. I would have to reach out to someone who reports anonymously to do our investigation, but we don’t release those names to anyone. We want people to know that confidentiality is something we hold in very high regard. We want individuals to know that this is a safe, confidential place to file a report, even if they’re a witness, to be able to share with us in a confidential manner.”

While the SafeSport Center has the authority to handle cases that affect all six kinds of abuse, they’re focusing on sexual abuse and the most egregious cases of physical and emotional abuse, and using their discretion to let the national governing bodies handle the rest. Reports of non-sexual misconduct should be sent to the U.S. Equestrian Federation SafeSport team, which includes USEF General Counsel Sonja Keating, paralegal Sarah Gilbert and Director of Regulation Emily Pratt.

“We’re still staffing up to meet the demand,” said Pfohl. “We have a very high bar for our investigators and their independence. For example, they must not have worked for a national governing body. They’re coming to us from law enforcement or from Title IX [the law that, among other things, requires schools to respond appropriately to reports of sexual harassment and violence]. They all have a background and training in trauma-informed victim interviewing.

“We are not law enforcement,” she continued. “When we look at a report, we’re looking at, ‘Did someone breech SafeSport code of conduct?’ Obviously if someone breaks the law they also broke the code. There are things that you can do that are against the code but don’t break the law. If it meets the standard of reporting, that is, if it’s anything related to child sexual misconduct, we immediately call law enforcement.”

Should law enforcement get involved, SafeSport investigators work in concert with that team. For example, with permission, they will often sit in on interviews.

“All of us wish we didn’t need to exist, but clearly there is a need, and for that I am extremely happy that we’re here, that we’re growing, we’re expanding. That said, we have a ways to go to meet the need and do all the prevention and education,” said Pfohl.

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It’s impossible to tell how common sexual misconduct is within the horse world. The Center doesn’t generally publicize how many reports they receive in each sport. Pfohl points out that announcing a low number could incorrectly give the impression that there’s not a problem in the sport, or a high number could wrongly give the indication that there’s a huge problem. A high number could show that the program is working, and survivors are willing to come forward, while a low number—or any other number at all—could spur on a rumor mill in a small sporting community, compromising an investigation and discouraging others from coming forward.

That being said, at the 2018 USEF Annual Meeting the COO of the U.S. Center For SafeSport, Malia Arrington, estimated that the Center has received five or six reports from USEF members. Pfohl also confirmed that in the first 11 months the Center had 409 total matters reported across 37 sports.

“Know this: If you think this isn’t a problem in your sport you have your head in the sand,” said Pfohl. “Just because you don’t have a report at the Center doesn’t mean it’s not going on; it’s just a matter of time before you do. Why not be on the prevention side of things? It’s very myopic to think these things aren’t going on. All of the above, from bullying to sexual abuse, are going on. Period.”


 EXPERT RESOURCES

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673. The hotline, run by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, offers confidential support from a trained staff member, support finding a local heath care facility appropriate for survivors of sexual assault, information about local laws, and additional resources.

“Child sexual abuse can be a challenging topic to discuss, and it can be even more difficult when you’re talking about protecting your own children, but conversations about sexual assault and harassment can be part of the safety talks you’re already having,” said Sara McGovern, the press secretary for RAINN. “Basic safety ideas like knowing when to speak up and listening to your gut are important parts of educating kids about sexual assault. Teaching your children how to talk about their bodies, boundaries and secrets are important steps.”

SafeSport.org: At the website for the U.S. Center For SafeSport you can report a concern and search for disciplinary records. You can also call SafeSport to report a concern at 720-531-0340 and chat online one-on-one confidentially by visiting safesporthelpline.org.

USEF.org: Click on the SafeSport tab for a searchable database of all individuals banned and on interim suspension by the U.S. Center For SafeSport, including equestrians and individuals across all sports. Here you can also report misconduct, take SafeSport training, read the official SafeSport Policy and more.

ChildHelp, the National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453. This line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week with professional crisis counselors.

StopItNow.org: This organization dedicated to stopping the sexual abuse of children has prevention tools, resources for parents and a webinar training series.

If you want to share your personal story with the Chronicle, please send an email to mbailey@coth.com.


This article appeared in the April 9 & 16 issue of the Chronicle of the Horse. Writing this article took months of research and travel for in-person interviews. If this kind of reporting is important to you, and you are not already a subscriber, please consider supporting the Chronicle by subscribing.

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